I had drafted a post on what I expected from my writing retreat at Moniack Mhor, but I decided to delete the post, along with my expectations and head off on my writing adventure with an open mind. I hadn't a clue whether I'd fit in or be out of my depth, whether the other students would be helpful and supportive or aloof and competitive. I hadn't a clue if I'd love every minute or long for home. I set off on the 2 hour drive and put all thoughts of what might or might not happen, out of my head.
As it was, the week surpassed even my most positive expectations
The whole experience was nothing short of magical. There were nine of us rather than the expected twelve, which was a bonus straight away. Big groups are my kryptonite but nine I can live with. We talked, we laughed, we cried (well, two of us did, me included of course), we cooked, we ate. Oh God, did we eat! And we wrote a bit, too. But ultimately, we made connections that I hope will last a lifetime.
Moniack Mhor itself isn't far from Inverness, but is settled in the shadow of Ben Wyvis and surrounded by nothing but hills, trees, fields and some Highland Cows so it felt like we were miles from anywhere. We had the best tutors we could have imagined - the writers Stephen May and Marilyn Bowering - who led workshops and held tutorials that dragged our floundering storylines kicking and screaming into daylight, then moulded them into something we could actually work with. Stephen focused on general structures that we could use to write stories or apply to the scenes in our novels, whereas Marilyn forced us to look deeper at the novels we were currently writing, and let that enquiry guide our direction. Both methods together have helped me restructure what I have, and give me the confidence and focus to build on that and hopefully get the thing written.
Our days were structured so we could get the most of our time. Mornings started at 8am with bonus yoga sessions provided by Stephen's lovely wife Karen. Breakfast followed, then workshops 9.30 until lunch, which was laid out in the well-stocked kitchen that was replenished constantly, as if there were faeries at work. Afternoons between tutorials were spent walking, writing, napping, eating, drinking tea, yapping....however we saw fit to spend it. Dinner was cooked via a cooking rota that we all participated in (with ingredients and recipes provided), then the evenings usually had some form of entertainment.
Mikey Cuddihy visited on Wednesday and gave an inspiring talk about her memoir, A Conversation About Happiness, while on Thursday, Moira Forsyth from Sandstone Press came along with some wonderful tips on how to approach a publisher (she'll be expecting nine manuscripts very soon, hopefully...)
Friday night entertainment was the one thing most of us were apprehensive about - each of us reading a piece of our own work. Friday afternoon felt like the day before an exam as we all edited and printed and prepped and practiced. There was a celebratory feel to the evening as a lone piper played and we were all handed a nip of Glenmorangie to calm our nerves. Dinner was a Burns Supper of haggis, neeps and tatties, accompanied by a hilarious and heartwarming Address to the Haggis by the only Australian in the group.
The whisky clearly had an effect as we each willingly took to the chair and read our pieces. Everyone was wonderful and every piece was so different. We had everything from mental hospitals to spiritualist funerals, and heart transplants to job interviews. I am not exaggerating when I say that I cannot wait to read everyone's final piece in full.
To cap the evening off, we ended up with a guitar player in our midst so had an impromptu acoustic singalong session. I even stayed up an hour past my bedtime!!
So what now? I have renewed vigour and an idea of where I need to go. I'm working on the novel again, using what I've learned to break it down and build it up again, better, stronger. I've been reminded of what works for me - free writing, time alone, jotting down ideas, space with my thoughts. And of course I absolutely intend to go on a retreat again, my only wish being it could be with the same eight people and two tutors again.
I feel honoured to have had this experience. It has inspired me in so many ways that even as a writer, I cannot put into words. To the tutors, thank you. You've given me faith in my writing and you've shown me how to be better. I will always be grateful for you advice and encouragement. To the staff at Moniack Mhor, you are all as magical as the place itself and I hope you know how much your assistance is appreciated. And to the eight writers who spent this weird week out of time with me, you are awesome. I loved every minute and wouldn't change a single second of it. I can hardly believe we've only known each other such a short time, it feels like its been forever. You all made it what it was and it's something that will stay with me. Love, support and friendship, always.